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How to Identify Mediocre Employees Before You Hire Them

How to Identify Mediocre Employees Before You Hire Them
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It’s a known fact that employees make or break a company. A smart, brilliant, skilfull employee can take your business to a level that you could only imagine. However, a mediocre one can drain out all your time and energy, and distract you from your core focus.

A friend of mine who runs an IT company hired a bunch of young kids who he claimed to be smart and talented. They lacked discipline and in less than 3 years the company was struggling to pay its bills. These kids were turning out to be liabilities. Unfortunately, the founder of the company had way too much invested in these kids, and it felt like he was running a marathon with a 100-pound weight around his shoulders.

So how do you identify if someone is smart even before you hire them?

You can’t be absolutely certain if someone’s going to be a smart hire, but there’re some processes you can follow to increase your odds.

Be clear about what you want

Mark Miller in his book ‘The Secret of Teams’ mentions three things – Talent, Skill, Spirit.

Talent might be something that is inborn, but skill requires practice, diligence and hard work.

Spirit on the other hand is your intangibles – teamwork, standing up for a team member in need, pursuit of greatness, a sense of pride and other qualities that are hard to measure.

As a leader, it’s important to identify the exact combination of skills and spirit that works for you.

In my business, we’re looking for qualities like highly teachable, service minded, putting the team above self, learning all the time, supportive of other team members, and looking to win or lose as a team.

The skill checklist depends on the position we are looking to fill. Skill and spirit are both equally important. A candidate might check all the boxes in the spirit part but if his skill is too far back on the learning curve, we don’t always hire him.

Look for people with long term goals

I like people who are ambitious, have a sense of pride, and are trying to get somewhere. I once hired someone who said, “I’m only looking for a job, that’s it. I don’t have any career goals.”

She did everything that was asked of her, followed instructions, but rarely did anything beyond what was asked. The biggest challenge with these employees is that they very rarely take the initiative, it’s just a job for them and motivating them can get tiring. At best, they’ll be average but rarely brilliant.

Graeme Donnelly, CEO of 1st Formations says, “We like to hire people with long term goals even if it means that we might lose them if we don’t provide them enough growth opportunities within the company. People with long term goals are willing to take initiatives, are always looking to learn, and come up with great ideas and suggestions.”

Watch out for early signs but be open-minded

A well-crafted email, a nice telephonic conversation and a strong cover letter might catch your attention, and put a candidate ahead of the list, but that may not always tell the complete story.

I once had a conversation with a prospective hire over the phone but wasn’t very impressed. However, a friend convinced me that I should meet her before making a decision. After meeting her, I decided to hire her for two weeks on a trial basis. She turned out to be one of my best hires. She was very committed to the job, and willing to go beyond her job description to get things done.

Jason Beahm, Founder and Managing Attorney of Beahm Law says “We like ‘trialing’ everyone who begins working with us. This includes giving new lawyers and admin staff non-essential sample work to measure their attitude for collaboration and a culture fit, and even working with other law firms as co-counsel on something like a simple DUI defense or car accident settlement prior to working with them on a much larger case. Cultural alignment is so essential, we would rather take our time up front to get it right.”


Hiring the right person is a difficult skill to master. But being clear about what you want will increase the probability of hiring right. If possible, it’s always advisable to hire someone on a trial basis for a day, or a week to test the waters. Along with being a skill fit, they must also be a cultural fit with your organization.